USDA official visits Chicago, talks about food deserts

Under Secretary Thornton says food education can change food deserts

January 25, 2011

A gas station that accepts food stamps.

A top U.S. Department of Agriculture official visited a Chicago high school on Thursday to promote healthier school lunches and eat a winning entry in a student cooking contest. Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Janey Thornton met students from Richards Career Academy. Thornton dined on the students’ Caribbean-themed lunch, alongside other dignitaries. And 20,000 Chicago Public Schools students throughout the district ate the meal, too.

The location of the school, 50th and Laflin is symbolic. It’s in a food desert – an area with a dearth of full-service grocery stores and healthy food options.
 
A WBEZ report examined the food stamp program, which is under USDA. It revealed how many authorized food stamp retailers are actually liquor stores and gas stations, and that these locations often have measly fresh offerings. A common argument from store owners is that few customers demand fresh food -- so, they simply don’t stock it.
 
Thornton said the USDA has started a pilot program in Massachusetts that tries to address the limitations of the food stamp program, which is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Basically, the idea is to encourage food stamp recipients to buy more fresh produce; if they buy fresh fruits and vegetables, their food stamp dollars go farther.
 
“It would encourage them to ask for those [fresh items] so that the grocery stores or 7- 11 type places will bring them in,” Thornton said.
The incentive for retailers is that the fresh item would cost less to food stamp recipients, but the store owner would still receive the original sale value.
 
It’s possible this program could come to Chicago.
 
“If this proves to be a successful model, I think the potential for this expanding is certainly there,” Thornton said.
 
But Thornton said such fresh-food subsidies may help solve a serious problem facing children who reside in food deserts. Even if children start eating healthier at school, they may return to communities that haven’t changed.
 
Still, Thornton says educating kids on how to eat better can make some difference.
 
“The change we’re going to see is going to be slow. But as kids in this school and other schools throughout Chicago and throughout the country take part in school gardens, they take part in farmer’s tastings. They learn more about the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables – we’re going to see that demand slowly grow.”
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